Master conductors - really?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Be careful what you wish for, I would advise the railroad industry. If you think railroads have service issues now, watch them multiply if members of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union (SMART) ratify the BNSF Railway agreement, which I hope they do.

We are justifiably proud of North America’s freight railroads. Their infrastructure has never been stronger. At the same time, they remain competitive with other modes of transport through rigorous cost control, and thinning the ranks of conductors by having one person monitor, command, and assist several trains is another, long-sought step in that direction.

But this latest instance of cost control will possibly come with a price attached, and that is service reliability. BNSF and those railroads who follow in its footsteps will find it even harder to keep their networks operating close to the plan.

Let me give you an example: Main line derailments occur eight times more often per train mile in North America than in Europe. Why, even the Russians have a derailment rate one-fifth of ours. European railroads are proactive, for instance rebuilding freight cars from the flanges up every ten years. If you wonder why the Swiss can operate freight trains to the second of their schedules, now you know why; they don’t tolerate surprises. Our railroads are reactive, fixing what gets broken. Surprises are the norm. Hundreds of unintended emergency brake applications occur every day, and at least as many hot-box indications; both requiring train inspections. In other words, there’s a lot of crap to put up with, and now we’re going to do it with one person aboard the train.

The agreement covers BNSF lines operated by the former Burlington and Frisco railroads, primarily, and will become effective when positive train control is operative, which could be as early as next year on some territories. As I read the agreement, master conductors will have assigned territories and on-duty times. They will be given BNSF-owned vehicles and provide ground services to any train, including those with an assigned conductor aboard. The basic daily pay rate for eight hours will be $351.90.

When things go right, which is some of the time, these could be easy-lifting jobs; you park your car or truck outside a Starbucks, listen to the train radio, and watch the clock tick. When things don’t go right, when there’s a train with a set of wheels on the ground and two more flagged by hot-box detectors waiting to be inspected, the railroad will shut down in a hurry. And you can count on engineers, with nobody to spell them at the throttle, stopping every train about every other hour (without alerting the dispatcher) to visit the john.

This breakthrough agreement may later be regarded as a milestone. I suspect the outcome depends not on the affected SMART employees but on the quality of BNSF management, whose challenge be setting this up so as not to fail. To save a buck at the cost of even less service reliability would be a tragedy.—Fred W. Frailey

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